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Farmers acquitted in mesa collapse 

Four years after a 25,000-cubic-foot section of the Nipomo Mesa collapsed during heavy rain, a San Luis Obispo Superior Court jury ruled that a nearby farm did not contribute to the cave-in.

The two pieces of property involved in the litigation sit 100 feet above the normally dry Santa Maria River on the border of SLO and Santa Barbara County.

The farm property, which is currently leased by Linda Vista Farms, has been used for decades to grow strawberries and other row crops. Adjacent to the farm sits old farmland that Santa Maria-based River Bluffs LLC hopes to turn into a 38-home development.

In early 2001, the Central Coast was inundated by a series of massive storms; the subsequent flooding covered much of the county, damaging homes and schools and killing a toddler trapped in a car in a creek near Pozo.

Then, on March 5, the skies opened and another 2.44 inches fell on the already super-saturated Nipomo Mesa. Linda Vista owner and longtime Santa Maria Valley farmer Francisco "Paco" Garcia was at his farm that morning and watched as an approximate 5.5 million gallons of water flowed from his property, across the River Bluff property, and over the edge of the mesa.

"The raging floodwaters I witnessed ... greatly exceeded any of the efforts we made to control normal rain runoff," he said in court documents.

When the skies cleared and River Bluff owners saw the extent of the damage, they sued Linda Vista, alleging that Garcia had intentionally cut through a dirt berm between the two properties and allowed the floodwaters through. Originally they asked for $25,000 to repair the damage. Later that number grew to $1.1 million.

After years of expert testimony from both sides and hundreds of pages of court documents later, a jury decided it was impossible to prove how the dike was breached and agreed that the farmers had used appropriate farming practices.

Attorneys for both sides were unavailable for comment before press time.

-A.H.

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